City Arts Funding Tempest
Unexpected Cultural Contracts cuts cause concern
1:40PM, Mon. Sep. 17, 2018
Skies may have been clearing over most of Central Texas this past weekend, but storm clouds continued to hang low over the city's Cultural Arts Division. The release Thursday of funding amounts for FY 19 showing dozens of arts organizations receiving drastic cuts in funding – anywhere from 15-45% – sounded alarms across the arts scene.
For most contract recipients, the funding hits were in the tens of thousands of dollars – upwards of $70,000 in the cases of the Austin Symphony and Austin Film Society. According to figures cited by Matthew Hinsley of Austin Classical Guitar, Peter Helf of Austin Chamber Music Center, and Cookie Ruiz of Ballet Austin on behalf of the Austin Arts Advocacy Coalition, the cumulative cuts for 36 recipients totaled just over $1.3 million.
In the letter sent to Cultural Contract recipients, CAD Manager Meghan Wells attributed the cuts to a decrease in available Hotel Occupancy Tax funds (the source of the city's cultural contracts funding) combined with the addition of "approximately 100 new, successful cultural funding recipients this year" and the "Funding Matrix variables determined by the Arts Commission Matrix Working Group (per-point score deduction, percent of operating/project budget, award ceiling, minimum award, equity modifiers, etc.)." She also indicated that the item approving cultural funding for the city budget would go before City Council on Thur., Sept. 20. This left the affected recipients just a week to react, respond, organize, protest, or whatever they wanted to do before the matter was finalized by council.
Contract recipients wasted no time. They began crunching numbers to show just how organizations would be affected by the cuts ("deeply harmful," "may result in the loss of jobs and arts engagements for many") and to see whether the HOT funding had actually decreased for the upcoming funding cycle. The letter co-authored by Helf, Hinsley, and Ruiz and circulated Friday morning took pains to maintain a largely diplomatic tone ("We are working to better understand the reasons for these sudden and dramatic reductions"), but made a point of noting the potential effects of these dramatic cuts and the lack of communication ("No one was made aware of these significant changes, meaning no one had time to plan."). It also sought to mobilize attendance at the regularly scheduled Arts Commission meeting on Mon., Sept. 17, and the City Council meeting on Sept. 20.
Clearly, much communication took place took place over the weekend. By Sunday, incoming Arts Commission Chair Jaime Salvador Castillo notified several arts leaders that the commissioners were pulling the cultural funding item from the City Council's Sept. 20 meeting and that a new proposal had been developed to use reserve funds to "rework the Funding Matrix for FY19." This was confirmed in a letter from Wells that was sent to contract recipients on Monday morning. She noted an item to that effect would be added to the agenda of Monday's Arts Commission meeting and "if passed, this amount would be added to the FY19 available funding amount for awards, and the Arts Commission Working Group would re-convene this week to examine how to reconfigure the matrix to utilize the additional funding." A revised matrix would be brought to a special called meeting of the Commission on Sept. 24 for approval. The letter went on to say that CAD staff would be meeting one-on-one with council members this week to discuss the cultural funding situation and gather feedback, and to reassure the arts community that its concerns had been heard and were being addressed. "Tonight’s Arts Commission meeting need not be a call-to-arms," she writes. Plans were already being discussed to look at and reshape the cultural funding with input from "the entire arts community."
Looks like the skies over CAD may be clearing now, too. More after tonight's Commission meeting.
The Arts Commission meets at 6pm tonight, Sept. 17, at the Carver Museum, Library, & Cultural Center, 1161 Angelina. To see the agenda, visit the City of Austin website.